Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Back on the Map: LeRoy City Lines Keeps Small Communities Connected

This is the first in a series of City Spot blog posts dedicated to stories of cities that are solving problems by putting ideas into action. You can read more Ideas in Action in Minnesota Cities magazine.

Since 1999, residents of the city of LeRoy, located 40 miles south of Rochester, could stay connected to the economic hub using Rochester City Lines. But when the service discontinued service to LeRoy (pronounced LEE-roy) in 2014, the need for transportation did not.

In the months after the service stopped, a group of employees who lived in LeRoy and worked at the Mayo Clinic organized a carpool to satisfy their transportation needs. Axel Gumbel, member of the LeRoy Economic Development Authority (EDA), was a driver for the carpool and says they were making the arrangement work until financial issues developed in summer 2015.

After what Gumbel describes as “a year’s worth of intense discussion,” the city saw an opportunity to act. The LeRoy EDA approached bus companies about the possibility of resuming routes to LeRoy. When this didn’t work, the city turned its attention to buying a bus and operating a service.

The city purchased a used, 31-passenger bus from Minnesota Coaches to get started. After factors including insurance, hiring drivers, and promotional materials were in order, LeRoy City Lines launched on Dec. 1, 2016. The city owns the service and the EDA operates it.

Gumbel says LeRoy’s service “copied exactly what people had been used to with Rochester City Lines.” The service departs from LeRoy, travels north to Grand Meadow, ending in downtown Rochester.

Mayo Clinic decided to subsidize a portion of the fare passes for employees who used the service, ensuring its initial success. Regular fares for the service are $10 per one-way ride, $86 for a 10-ride pass, and $219 for a monthly pass.

Weekday ridership to Rochester grew, prompting the EDA to purchase a 23-passenger, handicap accessible bus. Gumbel stresses that LeRoy Cities Lines is a resource for the entire region—not just the city. “Once we got it going, we weren’t shy about sharing it with everyone,” he says.

Staying relevant to riders
One thing that helps the service is its willingness to try new things. Gumbel says LeRoy City Lines is “doing things Rochester City Lines never considered,” such as expanding routes beyond state borders.

Due to growing interest, LeRoy City Lines extended to Chester, Iowa. LeRoy City Lines now offers round-trip commuter routes from Chester, Iowa, to Rochester twice daily.

LeRoy City Lines also began offering a charter service and saw unexpectedly high demand for events such as weddings, church retreats, and school trips. To accommodate the new charter service, the city added a third, 32-passenger bus to the fleet.

The service is also dabbling in providing medical transportation. Gumbel says they are still working out some challenges, so the service is offered upon request and not advertised as a regular offering.

Putting in the hard work

The entire initiative is self-funded. Gumbel and his colleague Craig Jacobson, president of the EDA, spearheaded the initiative and volunteer their time to LeRoy City Lines while also working fulltime jobs. To keep the operation running smoothly, Gumbel says, “We essentially have to run like a business.”

Like any business, there were challenges throughout the process of creating LeRoy City Lines. In hindsight, Gumbel said he wishes the EDA would have initially put more money into vehicles. The original three buses purchased worked well for the first five months, then repair bills started to pile up. The city eventually bought two replacement buses and now keeps the original 31-passenger bus as a back-up.

Despite the setbacks, LeRoy City Lines is motoring ahead. In its first year, they saw consistent ridership and demand for its various services. City Clerk Patty White is the administrative official for the city, and says LeRoy City Lines is playing an important role in promoting the city. “This has been one of the best public relations items the city and EDA have ever done,” White says. “I look forward to seeing LeRoy City Lines continue to grow.”

Advice for other cities
Gumbel advises other cities considering tackling public transportation to invest in quality vehicles and to spend time on the business logistics and customer service. Gumbel emphasizes that formal education on the topic is not required, so long as cities have the right mix of skills and the “drive” to take on the issue.

Written by LMC Intern McKayla Collins

Friday, January 18, 2019

Meet LMC Lobbyists and the New Governor in Minnesota Cities Magazine

It’s the beginning of a new legislative session at the state Capitol and—yes—the League will be advocating on behalf of cities every step of the way. But who are these advocates? Find out in the January-February issue of Minnesota Cities magazine! We asked our lobbyists a few questions—both professional and (just a little) personal—to help you get to know them better. Check it out in Meet the LMC Lobbyists.

And speaking of the state Capitol, there will be lots of new faces around there this year, including a new governor. We talked with Gov. Tim Walz, as well as newly elected State Auditor Julie Blaha and re-elected Secretary of State Steve Simon, to find out where they stand on topics of importance to cities. Read all about that in New Governor & Officers Discuss City Issues and Priorities.

Other highlights of the January-February issue include:
As always, you’ll also get insights from LMC Executive Director David Unmacht in St. Paul to City Hall, summaries of recent court cases in From the Bench, answers to frequently asked questions in Ask LMC, and more.

Bonus! This issue includes a four-page special report on the League’s 2019 legislative priorities!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Let’s Do This: A New Year's Greeting from LMC Board President Heidi Omerza

 A message from Heidi Omerza, LMC board president and city councilmember from Ely:
2018 was a time of many learning experiences, victories, and goodbyes.

The goodbyes are always most difficult. First, I would like to take a moment to say a heartfelt “thank you” to the many elected officials who are “retiring.” Your contributions not only to your city, but to the collective Minnesota cities community have made ALL of us better. Please do not be a stranger to the LMC. We still need you!

As I look to the year ahead, I challenge each and every one of you: Instead of making the usual list of New Year’s resolutions that includes a variety of healthy lifestyle choices, might I suggest adding an LMC activity. It can be as simple as joining a MemberLink community, attending a function (the Legislative Conference in February, the Annual Conference in June, a fall Regional Meeting) or jumping in with both feet and joining a policy committee.

Your LMC board and staff continue to work and represent all member cities. A quote by Margaret Mead sums it up best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world! Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As I look to the year ahead I know that together we will continue to make a difference in our cities, communities, at the state capitol and at the nation’s capitol. As always, your stories make a difference in good policy-making decisions.

Thank you for all of the work you do on behalf of your cities; it is greatly needed and appreciated! As my 14-year-old daughter says, “Let’s do this!!!!” Season’s greetings and happy 2019!

A fun memory from 2018—visiting Washington D.C. for the
National League of Cities' Congressional City Conference. From
left to right: Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson, Ely Citycouncilmember
Heidi Omerza, and White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The To-Do List of an Election Admin and Three Early Voting Facts

Equipment for elections is tested, organized, packed, and
ready to be delivered to polling locations prior to Election Day.
 A guest blog by Blaine City Clerk Cathy Sorensen

Hi there, my name is Cathy Sorensen, Blaine city clerk. I also serve on the LMC Improving Service Delivery Policy Committee and I’m the chair of the LMC Elections Task Force. After finalizing all the tasks involved in a busy election cycle I wanted to share a little about what is involved in administering an election and some of the behind-the-scenes tasks that most members of the public are not aware of.

From the to-do list of an election administrator:
•    Hire and train great election judges … and tactfully let some go!
•    Secure polling places.
•    Test election equipment for accuracy.
•    End-of-day accepting, sorting and filing of ballots & applications.
•    Opening and preparing absentee ballots for tabulation.
•    Pack election supplies: everything from pollpads, rosters, and ballots to pens and paper clips.
•    Tally write-in votes for school and other special districts that include Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and others that can’t be mentioned here.
•    Work all day Saturday before election day for absentee voting and packing supplies for the polling places! Some jurisdictions are open on additional weekends too.
•    Coordinate public works deliveries and pick up of equipment and materials for the polling locations.
•    Unpack supplies and regroup for the next election.

Three early voting facts
Three facts about early voting that residents (or even city officials!) may not know:
  • Early voting is available 46 DAYS before Election Day.
    • Having lots of extra visitors as early as September creates disruption and staffing challenges at city halls where balloting is conducted.
    • Interest in absentee voting increases each year, which will affect staffing and location needs. For example, more early voters may mean more early voting locations are needed in some communities, while fewer people voting on Election Day means fewer election judges needed in polling places on Election Day. This is the new norm!
  • In Minnesota, it’s all “absentee voting.”
    • Technically Minnesota doesn’t have “early voting,” it’s all “absentee voting”! The law allows people to put their absentee ballots in the tabulator in the seven days leading up to Election Day, but prior to that the ballots are placed in envelopes to be opened during those magic seven days. Voters need to fill out an application to vote absentee because voting rosters are only available on Election Day.
    • During those magic seven days we must still specifically offer voters the option to put their ballot in an envelope or put it in the machine.
    •  Bottom line: this process is very confusing to voters and not the same experience as voting on Election Day.
  • A law passed in 2016 established a presidential nomination primary.
    • With absentee voting beginning in December, this will make for a year-long election cycle. We anticipate having difficulty finding election judges for this primary because many election judges are snowbirds who leave for the winter. 
    • Judges are just one reason why we need to look at better ways to administer the presidential primary.
Public works staff help deliver equipment and materials
to the polls.
Are changes ahead?
Each year, city officials from across the state serve on the LMC Elections Task Force through LMC to recommend improvements to the system. To see our elections policies for 2019, including a proposal to better administer the presidential primary, check out the draft 2019 City Policies document here.

And last but not least, thank you, colleagues across the state, who help make elections happen!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

How One City Beat the Winter Doldrums

And other stories from the Nov-Dec 2018 Minnesota Cities magazine

Champ, the University of Minnesota-Duluth mascot,
has a blast skating on the 500-meter ice track.
Let’s face it: Winter in Minnesota can be pretty bleak. Well, Duluth leaders decided to do something about that last year, when they enticed more than 1,800 people to come out and play in the middle of February.

The city’s winter festival included a sledding hill, fire spinners, an ice track, fat-tire bike riding along the Lakewalk, live music, and more. And sure enough, people came out of hibernation, despite sub-zero temps. Even Champ, the University of Minnesota–Duluth mascot, loved it! (The proof is in the picture.)

Duluth put this winter wonderland together in only three months. How’d they do that? With a lot of help from their friends, as it turns out. You can read all about it in the Ideas in Action article in the November-December issue of Minnesota Cities magazine—hitting mailboxes this week! (Here’s a secret: It’s available online now at www.mncities.org!)

In addition to this winter celebration story, you’ll find a variety of other articles, including:

Affordable housing. Cities all over Minnesota are facing a housing crunch. It’s not a Greater Minnesota issue; it’s not a metro problem. It’s everywhere. Find out how some cities are addressing it in The Ongoing Quest for Affordable Housing.

City finance. Solid finances are the key to your city’s success. So, be sure to read these two articles with tips for keeping the city financially stable: Financial Planning for Elected Officials and Measure Up! Key Metrics to Keep Your City in Good Financial Shape.

Clean water. Maybe it’s not the most exciting topic (or maybe it is for you!), but residents in St. Martin were thrilled when the water coming out of their taps was no longer orange. Read Focus on Small Cities to find out how this city of 344 built the first all-biological water treatment plant in the state.

You can also check out From the Bench for summaries of recent court cases, St. Paul to City Hall for LMC Executive Director David Unmacht’s thoughts on what makes a successful city staff, and Two-Way Street for two cities’ experiences with Regional Safety Groups.

Photo credit goes to Wherehouse Productions

Thursday, November 8, 2018

One Way Minnesota Says 'Thank You' to Veterans

A Veterans Day message from Executive Director Dave Unmacht:
Life is full of firsts, although it is comfortable to suggest that the older one gets, the less of them there are. (And if you are wondering if I have a bucket list of ideals and aspirations in pursuit of dreams not yet fulfilled; the answer is no, at least not yet!)

Well, I had a first this fall when I, along with dozens of mayors and city officials from across the state, attended a National Guard ceremony to honor the Rosemount-based 34th Red Bull Infantry Division troop deployment. Around 650 men and women of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division represent approximately 185 communities from across Minnesota. Each person in the division is leaving their families, jobs, and communities to begin a 10-month deployment in the Middle East with an initial stop in Fort Hood, Texas for training.

Families of the Rosemount-based 34th Red Bull Infantry Division
gather for dinner before a recent deployment.
No doubt it is an anxious time for soldiers and their families. To ease their nerves and to create positive memories, a group of volunteers has made deployments in Minnesota something to remember. The work of around 200 volunteers from an organization called “Serving our Troops” came together to serve a delicious meal to the soldiers and their families in conjunction with the ceremony. I, along with League President Heidi Omerza and 2nd Vice President Brad Wiersum, had the honor to work one of many food lines serving up a classic steak dinner at the event on Sept. 30. Over 5,000 steaks were served.

Even more city officials representing many of the communities these soldiers are leaving behind for their deployment also helped out at the event. To my amazement, volunteers from Serving our Troops and their community partners have served over 95,000 steak dinners since 2004. Isn’t that amazing!
“This is how Minnesota comes together to say ‘Thank You’—dinner with the family for 5,000 people,” noted Serving our Troops spokesperson and co-organizer, Pat Harris. “It was an incredible show of support.” Friends of the League will recognize Pat and his wife Laura, the League’s Event Manager, and who is also very much involved in Serving Our Troops..  
Just a few of the city officials who volunteered for the event.
While we were thanked for participating, the real thanks
goes to the troops we enjoyed serving that evening.
I can attest to the truth of Pat's observation. It was an awesome experience; made even more extraordinary by the humbling thanks and expressions of appreciation the troops and their families offered to us as volunteers.  

I was one of thousands of people attending and even I felt special, though the only service I performed revolved around steak. But the thanks is really yours and mine to the troops and their families for the personal sacrifice each is making for their state and country.
Photo credit goes to LMC Executive Director David Unmacht

Friday, November 2, 2018

Career Fairs and LMC—Sharing Your Great Opportunities in Minnesota Cities

LMC HR staffer Donyelle Mikacevich and guest city official Pam Dmytrenko from Richfield talk to a
visitor at the recent Government and Nonprofit Career Fair at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union.

The League is adding a new skill to our résumé and setting up shop at a variety of upcoming career fairs to promote city employers, the value of city careers, and the great opportunities that our member cities can offer job seekers.

This work is in response to a call from city leaders to help address the challenge of recruiting for some positions within city operations, as well as your interest in having broader visibility among diverse candidates.

With your feedback we developed a good-
Executive Director Dave Unmacht and HR's Donyelle
Mikacevich test out the booth before the first career fair.
lookin' booth, plus handouts that introduce why city careers are a great way to make a difference in your community, how to use www.lmc.org/cityjobs and get started with NeoGov to receive job listings, and what candidates need to know about interviewing to help get their first impression right. Visitors to the booth can check out the jobs site and take the Discover Your City Superpower quiz too, depending on the event.

The goal is to prompt more qualified applicants to consider city job postings from across the state, and to leave a great impression about city careers with everyone else. This effort is consistent with some of our other projects over the past year, including our Discover Your City Superpower booth at the state fair, as well as a series of ads we ran on public transit for the duration of the fair promoting the jobs site.

Photo credit goes to LMC staffers Eric Haugen and Danielle Cabot